Written by Dr. Katie Eisner, DVM Rappahannock Equine Clinic and appeared in our Jan/Feb. 2017 issue

With the colder weather comes cold and flu season too.  Just as coughs and sniffles travel through our schools and workplaces, they can travel through pastures and stables as well.  So what should you do when you find your horse with a runny nose this winter?

First, remember that horses can have discharge from their nose for many reasons.  A small amount of clear nasal discharge is often normal.  Like humans, viruses causing cold and flu symptoms (like the rhinoviruses or herpesviruses we commonly vaccinate our travelling horses against) are some of the more common reasons to see a snotty nose.  Viral respiratory infections usually, but not always, are accompanied by a fever.  Bacterial infections can also be to blame, ranging from tooth root abscesses and sinus infections, to strangles, and pneumonia.  Other less common causes of nasal discharge include growths in the nasal passages and throat and guttural pouch infections.  If your horse has feed material in their nasal discharge, choke, or an obstruction in the esophagus, should be suspected, and your veterinarian should be contacted immediately.

So how do you determine if your horse’s nasal discharge is innocuous or something more serious?  First, take a moment to characterize the discharge.  Is it coming from one or both nostrils?  Generally a discharge that drains from both nostrils is coming from the lungs.  What color is the discharge?  A little clear fluid can be normal, but white, green, or yellow generally are not.  Does the discharge smell? How long has it been present and is there a lot or just a little? Then, as with any health issue in a horse, take a step back to assess the whole picture.  Consider your horse’s general attitude and appetite.  Check your horse for a temperature greater than 101.5 F.  Determine if your horse has any other symptoms such as a cough or swelling of the throatlatch.  Finally, call your veterinarian to consult.

Your veterinarian can help determine if your horse’s runny nose is something to be concerned about or not.  Along with a complete physical exam evaluating your horse’s overall respiratory health, you may see your veterinarian perform a rebreathing exam.  A rebreathing exam is accomplished by putting a plastic bag over your horse’s nose.  This encourages them to take deeper breaths and allows the veterinarian to assess better your horse’s lungs.  Depending on what they find, they may recommend an oral exam, bloodwork, cultures, x-rays, endoscopy, or ultrasound.  Based on the results of these tests, your veterinarian can make appropriate treatment recommendations.  Typically, treatment for viral infections, like in humans, consists of supportive care: providing anti-inflammatories, like bute or Banamine, keeping your horse well hydrated, and protecting them from the elements.  Your veterinarian can also help you determine whether or not your horse may need to be isolated from other horses.  Most viral and bacterial respiratory diseases are contagious and a minimum of 3 weeks rest and isolation is recommended to prevent their spread.

Conventional wisdom has us loading up on vitamin C and getting our flu shots when the threat of cold and flu season arrives.  Flu shots in horses are effective in preventing certain strains of the virus when given appropriately.  Current recommendations are to vaccinate adult horses that travel off the farm or interact with other horses that have travelled off the farm for Equine Herpesvirus 1 and 4 and Equine Influenza (Rhino/Flu) every 4-6 months.  Regular oral exams and dentistry can reduce the risk of tooth root abscesses.  Ensuring your horse’s immune system is up to snuff by diagnosing and managing illnesses like Equine Cushings will also give him a hoof up.

Although it is easy to dismiss a little “runny nose,” nasal discharge can be a sign of a variety of different things.  For this reason, it is always best to take a closer look and check with your veterinarian when something abnormal stands out.  If you have any questions concerning your horse’s health, please feel free to call us at Rappahannock Equine Clinic at (540) 854-7171.

Most Common Causes of a Runny Nose

• Bacterial Infections

• Dental Disease

• Strangles

• Sinus Infection

• Pneumonia

• Viral Infections

• Equine Influenza

• Equine Herpesviruses

• Guttural Pouch Mycosis

• Masses/Tumors of Throat and Nasal Passages